“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned,” sings Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He has left behind a life of imprisonment, torment and misery. Through grit and determination, and by the grace of God, he has built a successful business and become mayor of his town. When an innocent man is mistaken for Jean Valjean and threatened with life in prison, Valjean sacrifices his reputation, his financial stability and his very freedom by owning his label – prisoner number 24601. He risks everything to save a man he does not even know.
What does a story about courage and truth in the face of tyranny and oppression during the French Revolution have to do with sobriety and shame? Everything. Just like Valjean, I have a dark and shameful past. I was imprisoned by addiction for a decade. I clawed and scraped and begged for mercy from debilitating alcohol-induced depression only to sink deeper into the pit of despair with every drink.
I am 45 years old. For most people in my age range, the words, purple passion, conjure memories (or blacked-out-lack-of memories) of the two-liter bottles of everclear mixed with sugar, purple food coloring and artificial grape flavor we drank in high school. Even for those who had yet to acquire a taste for alcohol, it went down as easily as grape soda. And when it came up – at a party full of teenagers it almost always came up – it left a nasty purple carpet stain that was pretty hard to explain to our moms.
But for me, purple passion is not about those glory days. I coach high school soccer, and our primary team color is purple. A couple of weeks ago, I told our girl’s team that if they kept their focus and didn’t lose during a certain stretch of very winnable games, I would let them dye my hair purple.They were more than enthusiastic about the idea. In fact, they immediately started talking about braids and man buns and even cornrows. After negotiating the wager (I told them to back it down or the deal was off), we came to agreement on dying the last three or so inches of my hair a subtle shade called poppin’ purple.
My grandfather had a pipe-aroma Tiparillo cigar in one hand, and a stemmed glass of Michelob Light with a couple of ice cubes in the other as he approached his ball and squinted to line up his putt. With the beer glass placed sort-of elegantly next to his ball and the cigar dangling from his lips, he drained the putt. Papou (the Greek word for grandfather) exclaimed one of his signature lines. “Next case!” He collected his ball and his beer and was off to the next tee.
When a Man Loves a Woman is my all-time favorite movie because of how it hits home for me. It provides an example of the tremendous challenges a marriage faces when the alcoholic spouse stops drinking. Meg Ryan plays a loving wife and mother who drifts slowly and insidiously over the line that distinguishes a casual drinker from an addict. Andy Garcia plays a loving husband and father who spends increasing amounts of time “picking-up the pieces” when Ryan’s character drinks too much.
I cry a lot when I watch When a Man Loves a Woman. I cry because I know the pain of slowly losing control of my life to alcohol. I cry because I know the intensely agonizing process of gaining my permanent sobriety. I cry because I know eliminating alcohol doesn’t eliminate problems from a marriage. Abstinence fixes some issues, but it creates a whole new set of heartache-filled complexities. I cry because sobriety does not guarantee a happy ending.
The laughter of children echoed off the oil paintings, open shutter photography and charcoal drawings hanging from the walls of the expansive gallery. What seemed a scattered and random arrangement of art to me surely had a methodical placement contrived by my good friend, Mike, who was the exhibit curator and gallery owner. I am not a connoisseur of art, but I appreciated the toil of the artists as I munched on my appetizer plate filled with crostinis topped with olive tapenade and fontina-and-garlic-stuffed mushroom caps. I cautiously navigated the spacious room amidst a massive game of tag played by the dozens of children at the family-friendly party graciously hosted by Mike and his wife, Missy. I knew more than half of the bustling attendees making the evening as comfortable and festive as it was sophisticated and refined. There was an abundance of conversation, laughter, hors d’oeuvres and, of course, drink.
“You can’t always be doing great. Why do you always tell me you are doing great?” On the phone from 2,000 miles away, this question from my mother, asked a couple of years before I quit drinking, stunned me a little. “What do you mean? Everything is going very well,” I replied instinctually. I paused and prayed, and to my considerable relief, she dropped that line of questioning. She was right. I was lying. I was very good at lying to my parents.
Saint Patrick’s weekend started early for me. At 5:15am Friday I was opening cans and bottles from a couple of cases of beer and dumping them all into a bucket. We were making our huge annual batch of pale ale and cheddar bread at the bakery my wife and I own, and we needed the warm foamy beer to settle and flatten a bit before we could pour it into the mixing bowl.
I didn’t expect the reaction I had to the sounds of the cans popping open with a carbonated hiss. I was surprised by the wave of emotions that washed over me as I breathed in the aroma. I have been sober for fourteen months. We have beer, wine and booze in our house for guests or on the rare occasion Sheri has a drink, and it doesn’t bother me at all.
But the sounds of cracking cans and the sweet and bitter smell of my beloved hops and barley stirred something deep within me. It was unexpected. It was unwelcomed. The Irish band Blackthorn played drinking songs from the bakery speakers reminding me it was one of my very favorite holidays. At that moment, all I wanted to do was go back to bed.
The moment my daughter was born, my life changed dramatically. Not because I had to bathe her, change her diapers or because of the sleepless nights everyone warns first-time parents about. Rather, my top priority changed from a focus on career and financial success to helping my daughter navigate her young life. When each of my three boys was born, that sense of singular purpose to nurture well-balanced, joyful kids intensified. I wanted my four kids to be happy.
Naturally, I wanted my children to eventually enjoy a similar experience to what I long considered the best time of my life – my four years at Indiana University. College meant freedom. College fostered friendships. College was staying-up late and sleeping-through morning classes. College involved sports and parties and music and girls. I wanted my kids to have the same big-school lack-of-personal-accountability period I recognized as the very best of times.
I had high expectations. For starters, I expected swift and significant weight loss. I expected my wallet to fatten and my energy levels to increase. I saw no reason why I would not be more alert and free from sadness. I envisioned an immediate return to trust, warmth and desire from my bride of nineteen years, Sheri. I had no doubt that I would leave shame and suffering behind. Hours spent wallowing in what I called The Pit, the depths of depression and self-loathing, would be a distant memory. I would be myself again instantly. Was that too much to expect from my decision to quit drinking? If I was going to abstain from the second most important love of my life – second only to my wife and four kids – those benefits had better be the result.
Sheri’s eyes sprang open at the sound of our backdoor latch. This was the moment my wife waited for in dread-filled half-sleep. She lay there silently hoping beyond hope that I would come quietly to bed. “Sheri!” I shouted from our kitchen. “Sheri! Where are you?” Oh God, please no, she thought. Not again. Filled with panic, she raced silently through the house to find me in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. Don’t wake the kids, Matt. Please, no.